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FS 898

AUTOMATIC PRIMING
of Centrifugal Irrigation Pumps
by Hal Werner, Extension irrigation specialist

Automatic restart of irrigation systems increases pumping time


and reduces the inconvenience of manual restarting when pumps
are shut down by power outages or load management. An automatic priming system is required for automatic restart with centrifugal pumps. It also is helpful for initial priming or anytime
the pump is started.

check valve, and the discharge pipeline. Removing the air from
the suction line and pump case and filling it with water primes
the pump. When the pump is started, the centrifugal force of the
spinning impeller discharges water from the pump case and creates a vacuum in the suction line pulling more water into the
pump.

This fact sheet outlines some alternatives for automatic priming


of centrifugal pumps. (See FS 897 for a discussion of automatic
restart systems.)

Most centrifugal pumps are primed manually by the operator or


by using another vacuum source. One method of manual priming
uses a hand-operated suction pump. Many irrigators use other
combinations of equipment for priming including engine manifold suction or vacuum pumps.

Centrifugal Pumps
Centrifugal pumps are widely used for irrigation and are most
common where pumping from surface water supplies such as
rivers, lakes, and streams. Since the pump is physically located
above the water surface, centrifugal pumps must be primed
(filled with water) before they can be operated.
The first step in automatic restart is to automatically prime the
pump. Failure to prime a centrifugal pump can cause pump damage since the water being pumped provides necessary lubrication
and cooling.
A centrifugal pump has an impeller located inside a sealed
impeller case (Figure 1). An external drive shaft from the power
unit drives the impeller. Water is drawn into the eye (center) of
the impeller through the suction intake on the side of the pump
case opposite the drive shaft. Centrifugal force moves the water
outward through the impeller and discharges it to a pressurized
pipeline.
A typical centrifugal pump installation consists of an air-tight
suction line extending below the water surface, the pump, a
Figure 1. Example diagram of a centrifugal pump
directly connected to an electric motor.

Automatic Priming
Unattended, automatic priming of centrifugal pumps is necessary
for automatic restart of an irrigation system. Automatic priming
is the first step in the automatic restart process. When centrifugal
pumps powered by electric motors are shut down by load management control or power outages, a system for automatic priming must be combined with the necessary controls to ensure
priming and to power up the main pump once it is primed.
Repriming is not always required if the plumbing is sufficiently
tight to hold prime during the power outage. This often is the
case with newer equipment; however, it is necessary to have the
controls that ensure the pump is primed before restarting.
Automatic priming also simplifies the normal pump startup
process since the pump controls use a single start sequence
regardless of the priming status. The operator does not have to
connect various hoses and fittings and then manually start the
various components individually. Automatic priming controls
also can serve to protect the equipment from loss of prime while
the irrigation system is operating.
There are various automatic priming solutions. Commercial
packages are available but will cost several hundred to several
thousand dollars.
Repriming systems using off-the-shelf components can be
installed more economically, however, the installer must understand the control system when installing a combination of components.
Two basic types of priming systems are commonthe vacuum
method and the pump-fill method. The pump fill method only
can be used where there is a foot valve on the suction line; the
vacuum method can be used with or without a foot valve.

Foot valves are one-way valves installed on the intake of the


suction pipe. Foot valves maintain pump prime after initial filling, provided there are no leaks in the foot valve, suction line, or
pump. Since the foot valve is submerged, corrosion and sediment may cause the valve to lose its seal and leak. Foot valves
may not be desirable on long suction lines because of the difficulty in draining the line for repair and at the end of the season.
PUMP-FILL PRIMING
The pump-fill priming method uses a small submersible or sump
pump to fill the suction line and pump (Figure 2). An air release
valve lets air escape and a pressure or water sensor switches
power from the fill pump to the irrigation pump when the pump
and suction line are filled with water.

Pressure switch or water sensor. Detects when water has filled


the pump and activates the controls to deactivate the fill pump
and activate the irrigation pump. The switch could be set for a
pressure rise of 2 to 5 psi.
Wiring and controls. A 120V outlet is needed to run most submersible/sump pumps.

How the pump-fill method works:


When the start button for the pump is pushed or when power is
restored after a power outage or Toad management, the controls
start the fill pump.
Water is pumped to fill the suction line and pump.

Components of pump-fill priming:


Check valve. Installed in the pipeline on the discharge side of
the irrigation pump and must be spring loaded to provide enough
back pressure to activate the pressure sensor.
Foot valve. Installed near the inlet of the suction line and must
be tight enough for the fill pump to accomplish filling without
excessive loss of water from leakage.

When all the air is released through the air release valve, pressure builds behind the check valve and the pressure sensor signals the control relay to switch power from the fill pump to the
irrigation pump.
After operating pressure is reached, safety controls switch from
manual ("hand") to auto which then protects the main pump
from loss of pressure.

Submersible or sump pump.


Air release valve. Installed at the discharge of the irrigation
pump but before the check valve.
Hose and fittings. The hose connecting the fill pump should be
connected into the discharge side of the irrigation pump rather
than the suction side so water is not drawn through the fill pump
after the irrigation pump is started.
Hose check valve. A small check valve is needed where the
hose connects to the discharge pipeline in order to prevent back
flow through the fill pump when the irrigation pump is operating.

The control circuitry should also determine whether the start


cycle should be attempted one or more times before aborting
automatic restart effort. It is not desirable to continue to attempt
to prime the system if it is not successful after a few attempts.
VACUUM PRIMING
The vacuum method uses a vacuum pump to evacuate the air
from the suction line and pump (Figure 3). Atmospheric pressure
then fills the suction line with water through the submerged
intake. This method requires that all components be air tight
from the water surface to the discharge check valve near the
pump. A water sensor is installed on the top of the irrigation
pump and switches power from the vacuum pump to the irrigation pump when the pump case is filled with water.

Components of vacuum priming:


Vacuum pump. Adequate capacity to remove air from the suction line.
Combination air release and small check valve. On top of the
pump discharge or pipeline and needs fittings for connecting to
the vacuum pump. A small check on the valve prevents pressurized water from entering the vacuum pump while the irrigation
pump is operating.
Check valve. Installed in the pipeline on the discharge side of
the irrigation pump and must provide an air tight seal.

When water closes the contact on the water sensor, the control
relay switches power from the vacuum pump to the irrigation
pump. Safety controls switch from manual ("hand") to auto after
operating pressure is reached which then protects the main pump
from loss of pressure.
The control circuitry also should determine whether the start
cycle should be attempted one or more times before aborting the
automatic restart effort. It is not desirable to continue to attempt
to prime the system if it is not successful after a few attempts.

Wiring and Controls


Hose and fittings. Vacuum hose is needed to connect the vacuum pump to the air release valve.
Water sensor switch. Detects when the pump is full of water
and signals the controls to switch from the vacuum pump to the
irrigation pump. Located on the top of the pump or pipeline
where it is readily contacted by water filling the system.
Wiring and controls. A 120V outlet may be needed to run the
vacuum pump.

How the vacuum method works:


When the start button for the pump is pushed or when power is
restored after load management, the controls start the vacuum
pump.
The vacuum pump fills the suction line and pump with water by
evacuating the air through the air release valve.

The principle of operation for automatic priming is not complex.


It is essential, however, that the wiring and controls accomplish
the desired task without safety hazards to the operator or the
equipment. Therefore, comply with all National Electric Code
provisions and any local codes that may apply. Make sure that
the equipment and installation are suitable for the situation to
prevent any hazard to operator or system. Contract with a certified electrician who is familiar with irrigation systems to do the
work.
Figure 4 is a simplified diagram of the electrical controls for
automating the priming of a centrifugal pump. The diagram does
not include any additional timers and controls that would be
used to implement automatic restart of the remaining parts of the
irrigation system. A delay timer could be installed in parallel
with the start/stop circuit to enable automatic restart when power
is restored.

Troubleshooting
Automatic priming of centrifugal irrigation pumps can make
the task of starting and restarting the irrigation system much
easier. Any system, however, is not without potential problems.
Remember that if your pump is difficult to prime now,
automatic priming will not solve the problem. All of the
equipment must be in good working condition for automation to be successful.
Make sure that all fittings and pipe on the suction side of the
centrifugal pump are air tight. Air leaks or a leaky foot valve
will prevent priming. The check valve near the irrigation pump
discharge should be air tight. When the pump-fill method is
used, the check valve also needs to be spring loaded to provide
enough back pressure to activate the pressure sensor when the
priming system is filled with water.
Controls should prevent continuous restart attempts when
unsuccessful. Then there needs to be a simple reset to allow the
automatic priming to proceed once the restart fault has been
corrected. The water sensor or pressure switch should be located to readily activate the control switches that change from the
priming pump to the irrigation pump.

This publication and others can be accessed electronically from the SDSU
College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences publications page, which is at
http://agbiopubs.sdstate.edu/articles/FS898.pdf
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the USDA. Larry Tidemann, Director of Extension,
Associate Dean, College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences, South Dakota State University, Brookings. SDSU is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer
(Male/Female) and offers all benefits, services, and educational and employment opportunities without regard for ancestry, age, race, citizenship, color, creed, religion,
gender, disability, national origin, sexual preference, or Vietnam Era veteran status.
1000 copies printed by CES at a cost of $.20 each. February 1996; updated April 2002.